FLYING ON THE CHEAP Half-price airfares excite passengers but burden agents


Travel agent Karen Alexander was cuddling her 18-month-old son on the sofa of her home Tuesday night when she realized from a TV commercial that another airline price war had taken off.

Since Tuesday, when Northwest Airlines unveiled its adult-flies-free-when-a-child-travels fare, all the major carriers have kicked in with half-price discounts that have thrilled the public but swamped Baltimore-area travel agents with more calls than they can handle.

"This thing has really hit like a bomb. People are really booking this time. This has been phenomenal," said Ms. Alexander, manager of the corporate and vacation sales department at Towson Travel.

Under the new fares, for example, someone can fly round-trip from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Seattle for $195, to Minneapolis for $145, or to Portland, Maine, for $95.

The non-refundable fares, which must be booked and paid for by Friday, are based on half the usual lowest fares and are good on virtually all flights within the continental United States. Travel must be completed by Sept. 13.

"Our calls are running two to three times the normal volume," said Steve Meizlish, vice president for Travel Connection. At the travel chain's headquarters in Owings Mills, agents have been fielding 200 to 300 calls an hour in recent days, he said.

But not all those in the travel business are happy with what they describe as rock-bottom fares. Agencies make a commission of about 10 percent of the fare on each airline ticket they write. And when fares fall, so do commissions.

Further, the new airline fares are retroactive -- meaning that those holding unused tickets at higher fares are entitled to trade them in for new tickets at the lower fares. As a consequence, travel agencies must redo the tickets and refund part of the commissions they have already received.

"It's not been fun," groaned Phyllis Sarubin, an agent at Ramsay Scarlett Travel Inc. in downtown Baltimore. Not only is the reissue of tickets a time-consuming matter, but the overload of public demand has made it tough for agents to get through to the airlines by computer or telephone in recent days, she said.

A consolidation of the airline industry and the business failure of several carriers, including Eastern Airlines, had many in the travel industry convinced that fare wars were a thing of the past.

Still, a hint of what was to come occurred earlier this spring when American Airlines announced fare reductions through its "fare simplification program" and other airlines followed suit.

But local travel agents say the public's response to the earlier fare program was nowhere near as intense as the response to the half-price fares inaugurated this week.

"We have 20 lines, and they haven't stopped all day," Cheryl Rose, an agent at Corporate Travel Concept Inc., said late yesterday.

Ninety percent of the Columbia agency's work is with business travelers, and both small and large companies have been stimulated to make travel plans now as a result of the discounts, she says.

"They love it. They're willing to alter travel schedules and take whatever flight they need to fit the fares," Ms. Rose said of her customers.

Business travelers aren't the only ones devouring the low-price air tickets. They are also popular with vacation travelers or those with summertime family reunions in mind, said Towson Travel's Karen Alexander.

"People are going everywhere where their families are," she said.

The question is whether the higher volume of business will more than offset the lower commissions that come from the cheaper tickets, says Mr. Meizlish, the Travel Connection vice president.

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